God’s Forgiveness Requires a Response from Us
Father Richard Kunst
God’s love is absolutely unconditional. There is nothing we can do to escape from the loving gaze of our heavenly Father. There is no sinful act we can perform that will cause God to stop loving us. God loves Adolf Hitler and Osama bin Laden so much that he sent his only Son to die on the cross for them, and, of course, for you and me as well.
We all take God’s love for granted. We have every right to, but we must not take his forgiveness for granted, because his forgiveness, unlike his love, does in fact have conditions. To be forgiven of sin takes a little work on our part. In fact, it takes a lot of work for us to be forgiven by God.
The first step in being forgiven by God is that we need to be truly sorry for our sin; there has to be true contrition. This is why we pray the Act of Contrition in the confessional. It is a prayer in which we make clear to God that we are truly sorry for our sin.
Perfect contrition is when we are sorry for our sins, because they are offensive to God rather than from our fear of damnation. As the prayer says, “I detest all my sins because I dread the loss of heaven and the pains of hell. But most of all, because they offend you, my God, who are all good and deserving of all my love.” Perfect contrition focuses on the second sentence. We do not want to offend God, because we love him so much, and he is deserving of all our love.
A second condition to receive God’s forgiveness for our sins is actually written out at the conclusion of that same prayer: “I firmly resolve, with the help of your grace, to sin no more and to avoid the near occasion of sin.” In other words, we cannot say to ourselves that we will go to confession for a particular sin, but not do anything to improve our behavior.
The author C. S. Lewis once said, “The person who admits no guilt can accept no forgiveness.” We cannot be happy or even satisfied with our behavior. If it is sinful, we need to have the resolve to do better.
When the scribes and the Pharisees brought the adulterous woman to Jesus to be stoned, and he replied with the famous line, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone,” the scene did not stop there. After all the accusers left, he turned to the woman and said, “Go, and from now on do not sin anymore” (John 8:11). He did not congratulate her for not being stoned, and he did not stop with forgiving her; he charged her to go and avoid the sin that got her in that predicament in the first place.
The third condition to receive God’s forgiveness is likely the most difficult. Before God will forgive us, we must have forgiving hearts ourselves. If we do not forgive our neighbor, then neither will God forgive us.
This charge is downright scary, especially if you are one to hold grudges. If you have a grudge against a neighbor, a family member or whomever, you are quite literally killing your soul. Even if the person you are angry at does not ask to be forgiven, or even if it seems as though they do not deserve your forgiveness, you still have to forgive them. Remember that that was the exact situation Jesus was in while he was on the cross. Those soldiers did not ask for forgiveness, nor did it seem as though they deserved it, but Jesus said, “Forgive them, Father, for they do not know what they do.”
We confirm this last condition every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer. When we say, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive others,” we actually petition God in prayer to forgive us only insofar as we are willing to forgive those around us.
This whole concept of needing to forgive others is made clear at the end of the parable of the unforgiving servant when the master forgave the servant a huge debt, while the servant was unwilling to forgive his fellow servant even a little. The master eventually throws the first servant into prison until he is able to pay off the once forgiven debt. Jesus says, “So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you forgives his brother from his heart” (Matthew 18:35).
So try as you may, you cannot hide from God’s love. His forgiveness is another matter. We are not passive receivers of God’s mercy. We have to work at it. We need to be sorry. We need to at least try to change, and we need to forgive others.
This implies work, but we all know the harder we work at something the more rewarding it is once it has been achieved. As St. Paul said, we need to work out our salvation with fear and trembling.